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The Murder of Emmett Till
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Sex and Race

Why was what Till did so wrong in the eyes of Milam and Bryant? Why did a whistle result in a lynching?

James Horton
Save for its horrible conclusion, Till's experience was not unique. His was the first generation in which substantial numbers of America's blacks were born and reared outside of the South. This was a generation of children who returned to their parents' birthplace to visit relatives in an environment different from that in which they were socialized. Their unfamiliarity with Southern racial etiquette often confused white Southerners and put Northern black visitors and their Southern relatives at risk and sometimes in danger... Bobo's fatal mistake was in crossing the racial/sexual line in his encounter with Carolyn Bryant.

Jane Dailey:
Most historians today see the Till lynching as linked to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. A large and vocal segment of white southerners interpreted the Brown decision in explicitly sexual terms. For example, Walter C. Givhan, an Alabama state senator, asked about the decision, "What is the real purpose of this? To open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men." Beginning in 1954, white southerners used a variety of tactics to prevent this outcome. Southern congressmen declared their unwillingness to abide by the law; their action encouraged mobs to prevent the integration of schools and universities across the region. White Citizens' Councils -- known across the South as the "uptown Klan" -- put a respectable face on social and economic intimidation of civil rights supports, and inundated southern mailboxes with alarmist fliers promising white parents black grandchildren should they not stand together now against school integration. In this climate of cultivated white hysteria about black sexuality, eight-year old African American boys could be made wards of the state for playing a "kissing game" with little white girls (as happened in North Carolina) and the flirtatious crack of a fourteen-year-old boy could become a death sentence, as it did for Emmett Till in 1955.

If the whole system of segregation had not seemed besieged (as it did to white Mississippians in 1955), then Milam and Bryant probably would not have responded so violently to Till. But in this context of white fear and anxiety about African American sexuality, and about black sexual access to white women and girls, Till's actions assumed a new, more powerful, meaning.

John David Smith:
It was more than a whistle. Till allegedly touched Carolyn Bryant, propositioned her, and thus crossed over into the white man's sexual world. Till's behavior became "uncivilized" and, to the likes of extreme white supremacists, justified the actions of Bryant and Milam. People in control have historically employed extralegal or vigilante justice to enforce social customs. In this case they used racial violence to enforce community/racial standards, codes of behavior, in a ritual of racial fear and hate.

Stephen Whitfield:
Till not only engaged in a wolf-whistle, but was accused of squeezing the arm of Mrs. Carolyn Bryant and asking her for "a date." To him it was a joke, done to impress local young blacks. To her husband and his brother-in-law, it was a crude and crass violation of the etiquette of Jim Crow, an insult that required punishment, lest other blacks try to cross the color line in such a fashion. The whistle itself did not "result in a lynching." But if Bryan and Milam can be believed, in testimony they presented to a journalist, William Bradford Huie, after they had been acquitted (and could no longer be tried for the same offense), it was Till's impudence, his apparent defiance and perhaps lack of fear, that pushed the two abductors into killers.

Whether it was a lynching or not depends on the definition. If lynching means a public ritual meant to assert an ethos by killing those who overstep boundaries, a communal act of murder (often accompanied by torture), then Till's death was not a lynching. The two men (and possibly others) acted in secret. They did not intend to get caught or be prosecuted. This racially-motivated killing lacked the unashamed, public features of lynchings earlier in the twentieth century.

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